Understanding the GCC Collective Security Mindset
Regional security – or the lack thereof – has long been a challenge for the six Gulf Arab monarchies. Despite numerous internal and external efforts aimed at addressing Gulf security and bolstering capacity to manage tensions, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have yet to develop a cohesive or durable framework to manage their security needs. This can be attributed to a longstanding pattern of reliance on external guarantors such as the UK and then the US. Sovereignty concerns, rivalries between Gulf states, competing responses to regional conflicts and lack of unity in managing threats from Iran have also impeded Gulf security cooperation efforts. These experiences have formed a collective security mindset among some GCC states and have formed divisions with others. The creation of the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council was intended ‘to effect coordination, cooperation and integration in all arenas’,1 and develop capacity to manage regional tensions, particularly with regards to Iran. Yet due to the aforementioned challenges, the GCC has yet to effectively provide Gulf states with an adequate security structure.
A region in flux
Geopolitical tensions, the fallout from the war in Ukraine, uncertainty over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear agreement, and the shifting global order have forced GCC states to reconsider their security dynamics. US competition with Russia and China alongside a reprioritization of American assets and commitments away from the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific have fuelled deep security concerns. This has led to the birth of new alignments such as the September 2020 Abraham Accords which formally normalized Emirati and Bahraini ties with Israel. With the region in flux, bilateral regional de-escalation efforts have also been pursued in an attempt to dial down tensions with Iran and Turkey.
GCC divisions after the 2017 Qatar crisis have also been formally resolved through the 2021 Al Ula agreement but internal rivalries continue to hamper coordinated GCC security efforts. Against this backdrop, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia continue to favour a collective security process as the best mechanism to address GCC security needs. The smaller GCC states of Kuwait, Qatar and Oman are more inclined to support a cooperative model that will account for their concerns and regional interests. Regional security can only be effective when both models – collective and cooperative – are not seen as mutually exclusive.
External security shifts
The six Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Oman – have long relied on external powers to manage security challenges. Until its withdrawal from posts east of Suez in 1968, the UK initially provided Gulf states with security support.2 Gulf states were then brought under the US security umbrella through the Carter Doctrine.3 To protect its energy and security interests and to buffer against threats from Iran and Iraq, the US increased its military footprint by building bases throughout the GCC. The 1990 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the latter of which was executed in spite of Gulf states’ protestations, further entrenched a pattern of Gulf dependency on the US.4 Rather than bring stability to the region, the outcome of the US intervention in Iraq was seen to contribute to regional instability that resulted in the growth of extremist groups alongside an expansion of Iranian power.
These dynamics were aggravated by US domestic policy shifts emerging from the 2008 election of President Barack Obama that resulted in his 2012 calls to reposition American interests to Asia. Accompanied by US efforts to negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, a prevailing sentiment of abandonment began to percolate among the Gulf states.5 The call to move US assets to manage threats from Russia and China continued through the Trump and Biden administrations, exacerbating regional security concerns over US disengagement. The August 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan provided the final confirmation to Gulf states that the implicit security guarantee that had underpinned US–Gulf ties had frayed.6
In the context of the war in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s neutral response to the Russian invasion should be seen as a direct reflection of their frustration with the Biden administration’s positioning. Washington’s lacklustre support for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after drone and missile attacks from the Yemen-based Houthis has publicly exposed mounting grievances with the US. These differences have, at the same time, presented individual GCC states with an opportunity to redraw their security relationship.
The GCC and Gulf competition
The GCC was formed in 1981 to manage shared threats and enable cooperation between the six Gulf monarchies. Discussions among Gulf states had been under way since the mid-1970s but added momentum came from regional upheaval stemming from the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the outbreak of the 1980 Iran–Iraq war. Despite having weathered many internal and regional challenges, the GCC is not seen to be an effective collective security entity. Tensions over sovereignty, a legacy of mistrust over border and transboundary issues, power imbalances between countries, political competition and interference have impeded the effectiveness of the GCC.7
The limitations of the GCC stem from the institution’s inadequate foreign policy decision-making authority. The veto granted to each member state has obstructed decision-making. Furthermore, the GCC’s military arm, the Peninsula Shield Force created in 1984, lacks collective defence capability. The 1990 Gulf war further exposed the defence limitations of the partnership alongside the GCC’s persistent reliance on the US.8
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly pushed for the bloc’s greater integration and unity. However, efforts at forging a closer union have been repeatedly stymied by smaller GCC states that have bristled at Riyadh’s weight in the bloc. In 2009, the UAE withdrew from plans to create a currency and monetary union when it was decided that the GCC Central Bank would be located in Riyadh instead of Abu Dhabi.9 A 2013 Internal Security pact was agreed upon, but a lack of political and economic harmonization has seen each GCC state pursue overlapping and competing energy diversification programmes that have impacted coordination in developing energy policy and infrastructure. Despite increased synchronized response during Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and Oman, Saudi proposals designed to strengthen the Gulf union in 2013 were blocked by Oman which threatened to withdraw from the entity should the union go ahead.10
The GCC was most critically damaged by the 2014 Gulf rift and the 2017–21 blockade of Qatar which was formally resolved by the January 2021 Al Ula agreement.11 The blockade arose after competing regional responses to the Arab Spring when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off relations with Qatar, demanding that Doha halt its support for political Islamic groups in the region, terminate its ties with Iran and close down its Al Jazeera news network.12 While not directly targeted, Oman and Kuwait were deeply troubled by the levels of activism and hostility within the GCC, and feared that they too would be pressured to alter their own domestic and regional policies. Throughout the crisis, the GCC continued to operate at a technical level, but restoring trust among the leadership will take time. Against the backdrop of these issues, GCC security cooperation remains very much a work in progress.
The Qatar crisis also stymied attempts by the Trump administration to develop a more robust GCC-based security framework as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran.13 The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) was initially announced during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 with the objective to bring together the GCC, Egypt, Jordan and the US to create a political, economic and regional security entity. Due to the Qatar crisis, Gulf states failed to coalesce around the MESA initiative with individual states more interested in direct US security guarantees rather than the multilateral objectives put forward by Washington.14
The Iran angle
Security threats from Iran remain the principal challenge for all Gulf states. Iran’s regional activities including its support for proxy groups outside its borders and transfer of lethal aid to those groups, together with its missile, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and nuclear programmes, threaten the security of Gulf states. Even prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Bahrain and the UAE saw Tehran assert sovereignty claims over Bahrain and seize Emirati islands in the Persian Gulf.15 Tehran’s policy of exporting the 1979 revolution led to support for Shia groups throughout the Gulf. Successive US administrations pursued policies aimed at containing Iran, but the 2003 Iraq war saw Tehran expand its regional reach beyond Lebanon and into Iraq. The Arab Spring afforded Iran an opportunity to expand its influence into Syria and Yemen by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Yemen’s Houthis.
Despite investing defensively in procurement and containment policies, the GCC has been unable to thwart or roll back Iranian regional advancements. Gulf states have long demanded and preconditioned talks with Iran on its withdrawal from Arab lands and cessation of its destabilising regional behaviour. A further challenge is the imbalance between Iranian asymmetric military capabilities and Gulf conventional military investments that would also require mutual compromise.16 While all GCC states are united by their strategic view that Iran poses a security challenge, they have been divided in their approach to managing and containing Tehran’s reach. Because of tactical divisions, Tehran has been able to develop leverage within the GCC. Smaller GCC states such as Oman, Kuwait and Qatar have, despite varying security concerns and instances of Iranian interference, called for greater engagement and dialogue with Tehran.17 For example, Omani backchannelling between Tehran and Washington helped to lay the groundwork for progress in the 2015 JCPOA agreement. The 2017 Qatar crisis also afforded Tehran an opportunity to support Doha by opening its airspace to ease Qatar’s isolation. This assistance was reciprocated during the 2018 US withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions when Qatari payments helped the Iranian economy. Doha’s backchannel mediation between Tehran and the Biden administration aimed at reviving the JCPOA had a similar effect.18
Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 designed to transfer instability to the Gulf states that supported President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, drove the UAE to recalibrate its position and pursue bilateral de-escalation with Tehran. In August 2022, the UAE returned its Ambassador to Tehran. In April 2021, with JCPOA discussions under way with the Biden administration, Riyadh followed suit. While that dialogue has yet to result in any meaningful resolution of bilateral issues, it reflects a pattern of bilateral outreach amid Iranian pressure.
Towards cooperative and collective regional security
Amid frustrations over US geopolitical repositioning, inadequate GCC cohesion and tensions with Tehran, Gulf states have pursued independent bilateral outreach and de-escalation pathways, seen in the Emirati and Bahraini normalization agreements with Israel. This new strategic flexibility has also resulted in Saudi and Emirati outreach to Tehran and Ankara, Qatari mediation efforts to manage tensions over the JCPOA and a March 2020 ceasefire that lasted six months tempering the Yemen conflict. The June 2021 Baghdad Summit that brought together leaders from around the region was another example of regional bridge-building. A second Baghdad summit was due to be reconvened in 2022. This calibration should not be misconstrued as a modification of Gulf threat perceptions, but rather reflects an adaptive policy driven by fluctuating US–Gulf and regional dynamics.
Despite differences with the Biden administration, individual GCC states and particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE are acutely aware of their vulnerabilities vis-à-vis an entrenched Iranian regime. Their instinct remains that collective security is of primary importance and critical to managing external threats. By doubling down on collective models, they are actively seeking renewed security guarantees and defensive capacity-building support from Washington. A secondary, albeit more protracted effort is being directed at forging deeper GCC security integration. Above all, this requires greater GCC solidarity. Respect for sovereignty will be a key demand of smaller GCC states after the Qatar crisis. But formal diplomatic ties between Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain have yet to be re-established, suggesting that any integration process will take time to develop. A third initiative currently under discussion aims to build an Arab–Israeli ‘regional security construct’ that would be CENTCOM-managed and focused on bringing Israel and Arab states together to manage shared threats from UAVs and missiles.19
There is an opportunity to stitch together these individual, collective and multilateral approaches. Doing so would aim to address security deficits while building towards a cooperative process that could be forged through issue-based discussions. Patterns of dialogue can over time be leveraged with the aim of cultivating functional regional cooperation through the establishment of norms similar to those of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Respect for sovereignty and non-interference are irrefutable principles supported by Gulf states, but for all Gulf states to sign up to such an entity they would need to see tangible shifts and commitments from Iran to change its pattern of regional interference.
Dialogue processes alongside confidence-building initiatives in functional areas of regional concern such as health, climate and maritime security could pave the way for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up cooperation. Maritime security provided an opening for the UAE’s 2019 outreach to Iran. In advance of the Egyptian and UAE Conferences of the Parties (COPs), urgent climate discussions can provide a platform for broader regional cooperation. A failure to revive the JCPOA, which could lead to a dramatic acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme, could also open the door for practical discussions on nuclear safety and non-proliferation. Ultimately though, for a cooperative process to succeed, equal investment to address collective deficits will also be needed.
This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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 The Carter Doctrine states that ‘any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the “vital interests” of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force’. For more, see Brands, H., Cook, S. A., and Pollack, K. M. (2019), ‘RIP the Carter Doctrine, 1980-2019’, Foreign Policy, 13 December 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/15/carter-doctrine-rip-donald-trump-mideast-oil-big-think/.
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